I’m Going Back to the Plough

(Which is better: city life or country life?  Why do people move?  How big is Boise, Idaho?)

I’m moving out of the city and going back to live, full-time, on the farm.  According to Allied Van Lines moving is not that unusual since in a lifetime most people change homes about 11 times (my mother moved nine times within a five-year period).  The majority of moves people make are local, from an apartment to a house in the same city, for example.

But people in my age group, the baby boomers, are the least likely of any demographic to make a big move. 

Generally, older adults have finally paid the mortgage off and are unwilling to take on any new debt, especially house loans.  And if they do change homes, they want to live closer to town, not further away.  They want to be nearer their family, goods and services, and especially medical facilities as they age.

None of those issues mattered to me though, when I decided to move back to the farm.  I simply wanted to find more peace and quiet and less rush and riot. I saw Elton John’s biopic, Rocketman, this past summer, and while I was packing boxes for my big move I found myself singing along with Elton’s “Yellow Brick Road”:  “So goodbye yellow brick road, where the dogs of society howl, you can’t plant me in your penthouse, I’m going back to my plough…”

The farm does have plows, which means work, so the lifestyle has not always been my panacea.  The first twenty years of my married life I plied, if not plowed, our farm.  I remember walking field roads dreaming of city streets and city lights.  I’d become a hay seed, but I longed to make hay in the big city.  I couldn’t shake wonderful memories of being a young college girl in downtown Philadelphia.  I loved the beautiful fountain at Logan’s Circle with the sculptured winged gods spouting water.  Down the boulevard from Logan’s Circle was the magnificent Philadelphia Art Museum.

I finally got the chance to leave the farm once my children were raised, and after I’d made a career change.

I moved to the biggest city around: Boise, Idaho, population 226,570.  It wasn’t the Big Apple but it was a fairly Large Potato.  When I made that move a farm girlfriend of mine asked me, “What does the city have that the country doesn’t–besides shopping?”

I thought (but didn’t say): you plebian!  A country girl could never understand the excitement, the energy, of so many people working and thinking and creating, in one big, buzzing place.  Even Michelangelo said, “I have never found salvation in nature.  I love cities above all.”

But I came to discover my plebian friend had a point.  Though cultural centers, cities are shopping meccas for most people.  In terms of daily living, this is their biggest draw.  It took some time, but eventually I found the gridlock and traffic jams a poor trade for the peace allotted to those who live among the wheat fields.

Another friend, Donna, said, “Won’t you be bored living out on the farm again?”

Maybe.  But I’m beginning to understand the upside of boredom, how it motivates you to engage with all the little things you missed before, like the litter of kittens out by the barn.  Besides, every day’s not meant to be a bell-ringer.  If you can’t stand the lethargy of time, you’ll die young—or at least sooner from rushing about so much.

So, it could be I’m moving back to the farm to save my life—or savor it. 

Really it doesn’t matter. If I’m honest, it’s how you live, not where you live that matters.  Early this morning in the dark, I opened up the back patio door on the Snake River rushing past.  When I looked up, a spray of stars twinkled in the sky.  I took a big breath, and smelled the freshly cut hay in the field next to our house.  Mornings on the farm are the best.

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Image Credit: packing boxes        Image Credit:  Rocketman        Image Credit:  old barn photo by Diana Hooley

 

 

The Trip to Sun Valley

 

There’s a book I read years ago about the American West, a work of fiction by the author Wallace Stegner: Angle of Repose.  Stegner’s book has a long and colorful history, including a Pulitzer Prize, but what I want to talk about is its title.  I’ve always been fascinated by the title.  Angle of repose is a geological term meaning the place where rocks tumbling down a hill finally come to rest.  The title is a metaphor for the story: a young pioneering couple from the east, move west, and go through both physical and emotional upheaval before they finally find together, an angle of repose.

Maybe my fondness for this book’s title has to do with the fact that I once was an easterner.  Like many transplants, I lived other places, experiencing different landscapes and cultures before I settled in the West.

I thought about this the past weekend when I took my elderly mother and two of her friends for a little get-away to Idaho’s beautiful Sun Valley resort.  Mom said she always wanted to see Switzerland (who doesn’t?), and I thought, since international travel isn’t viable for her anymore, Sun Valley might be the next best thing.

On the trip, I told the ladies packed in the backseat of the Subaru that I first heard about Sun Valley years ago, when I was in high school back east.  I think I must have been rifling through a magazine at the school library, likely having skipped lunch, when I came upon a glitzy advertisement for the resort. The ad read: “Winter playground of the rich and famous!”  I remember the picture of people happily skiing down snow-covered mountain peaks and thinking, “Wow.  Isn’t that pretty.  Too bad I’ll never go there.”  I couldn’t imagine visiting a place like Sun Valley because, a) my family was too poor for resorts; we scrapped by on my dad’s trucker salary, and b) Sun Valley, Idaho was about 2,000 miles and several feet of elevation away from the Indiana plain where I lived.

Now that I think of it, neither my mother nor I would visit Sun Valley until we’d found our angle of repose.  We both had journeys to take, alternately exciting and challenging, before we could reach a stopping place in the inter-mountain West.

Mom had to travel to the Philippines where she worked several years as a missionary nurse.  Then, when she came back to the States, nostalgic for old friends and old places, she moved to where she’d grown up, near Bluefield, West Virginia.  She finally landed in the West when she turned eighty.

After high school, I left Indiana, spending time first in the big city of Philadelphia, and then on an Indian reservation, before going to college in the bucolic Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.  I managed to make my way west when I met an Idaho farmer.  I’d never been to Idaho before, and the only thing I really knew about the state (like most non-Idahoans) was that they grew potatoes.  It wasn’t until I found myself teaching school and trying to raise four children that someone suggested I needed to take a few days away, all by myself.  I should go to a mountain resort just a few hours north of our farm.  Sun Valley is glorious, they said, alpine meadows and fine dining.  Lots of history.  Ernest Hemingway lived there.

I told mom and her girlfriends how over the years I’ve come to Sun Valley dozens of times, drawn mostly by its natural beauty, the sagebrush hills with the rugged Pioneer and Boulder Mountains rising behind them.

Sometimes I think about my eastern-living days:  the humidity, the always unseeable sky—blocked by either trees or buildings.

There were no mountains to scale or climb down from in northern Indiana.  No place to stop on the trail, to sit awhile, or just shut my eyes, peaceful in my repose.

 

 

Image Credit: Angle of Repose   Image Credit: Diana Hooley   Image Credit: Sun Valley poster

Out of the Suburbs and Into the Desert

I grew up in a little box of a house in an Indiana suburb.  There were houses on either side of us and one across the street.  As far as the eye could see was a flat landscape littered with driveways and asphalt.  So when I moved West after college, I was in awe of the mountains and deserts.  I still am: all this empty space and rugged beauty.  It never grows old.  Every year when May rolls around and the weather warms up, I feel compelled, like the great explorers of the West, John Muir and John Wesley Powell, to take a look around.

The month of May I call Desert Appreciation Month. The temperatures are still cool enough to make hiking pleasant–and all the wildflowers are in bloom. 

May, with its warmer weather, not only beckons people, but other creatures too. Yesterday, hiking the Wilson Creek Trail I came across a long, patterned bull snake gliding peacefully through the grasses.  The Wilson Creek Trail climbs the Owyhee Mountain front in Idaho.  When I saw the snake of course, I jumped back, startled.

Bull snakes look similar to rattlesnakes and I’ve come across enough rattlesnakes in my desert wanderings that I try not to repeat that experience.

A couple of years ago I was walking in sneakers and shorts along the side of a dirt road when I heard a distinct rattle sound warning me away.  I froze, aware of my exposed legs, and looked down to find a rattlesnake coiled not three feet from me under a sagebrush.  I softly stepped back thinking I really needed to wear boots and long pants hiking around in snake season.

trailhead

On the Wilson Creek hike I crossed several bends in the little ribbon of a stream known as Wilson Creek. 

Apparently, the snow melt coming off the peaks of the 8,000 foot Owyhee Mountains formed the headwaters.  Two hundred or so head of cattle drifted in and around the creek bed blocking my path.  I walked through them keenly aware of bawling and nervous cows worried about their calves.  Cows are generally docile animals but have been known to charge if they think their calves are being threatened.  It was difficult to ignore the damage done to little Wilson Creek by this big herd of cattle.  The banks of the stream were all caved in and the vegetation around stomped down, flattened, and covered with cow pies.  I wondered what this oasis in the high desert would look like minus cows—or at least with fewer cattle feeding from such a fragile stream.

Above me, on the hillside, I saw neat planted rows of crested wheat grass.  No doubt the Bureau of Land Management had tractors drill seeds into the soil, probably hoping to restore such a heavily grazed area.  It always makes me shake my head when I hear ranchers complain about the federal government infringing on their rights.  The government supports ranching in so many ways: including keeping grazing fees phenomenally low ($1.69 a month per cow/calf pair —this as opposed to approximately $25 a month to feed a cow/calf pair on private land).   They not only plant hearty grasses to ensure better pasturing for cattle herds, they also fence miles and miles of pasture—free of charge.

Fortunately, away from the stream bed I noticed plenty of undisturbed native wheat and rye grasses.  I watched their leaves blow gently in the breeze.

“Multiple Use” is a phrase, a paradigm for public lands today.  Multiple use was everywhere evident on the Wilson Creek Trail.  I saw hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders on the trail.

Off in the distance an RZR (a Razor, a crazy-fast, steep-climbing recreational vehicle) drove, dust billowing behind. Still, for all the uses made of the Owyhee Mountain Front that day, it was blissfully quiet the farther I hiked up into the mountains.  I didn’t see a street sign or hear a car honk.  I almost pinched my arm to remind myself I wasn’t dreaming, I wasn’t still living in a dreary Indiana suburb.  No, I was happily awake, enjoying the mountains and deserts of the American West.

 

Image Credits:  Diana Hooley on the Wilson Creek Trail, southwest Idaho

 

Snake River Canyon

There are certain places we visit so many times in our life—maybe a hill in a park or a bridge we cross every day to get to work—they become meaningful to us. The Snake River Canyon near my home is such a place for me.  I’ve hiked the canyon dozens, maybe hundreds of times over the years.  On today’s hike, I’m reminded how pretty the canyon is in the spring.  At its neck, I’m greeted by a vista of green, desert grasses lining the canyon walls.  I’m always amazed to see the canyon, brittle brown most of the year, turn Easter egg green for a brief week or two in the spring.

I remember the first time I really looked at the canyon and noticed how beautiful it was.

I was newly married and had just moved to a desert farm with my husband.  One morning we had a big fight, and I was so angry I took a walk back in the canyon just to cool off.

I barely saw where I was going, my eyes were so blurred with tears. But slowly I became aware of how lovely and quiet the trail was.  Before long, my fury was all gone, lost in the peaceful canyon wilderness.

The walls of the Snake River Canyon were shaped by the flooding of ancient Lake Idaho and Lake Bonneville thousands of years ago.  Now the Snake River runs along the bottom. I look to my right, hearing the river as it winds its way down through the canyon floor.  I’m not able to see the river though, the Russian olive trees along the bank are too dense.  Several years ago on one of my canyon hikes with our family dog, Lindsey, we walked by a particularly dark, deep stand of Russian olive trees.  Lindsey peered into the woods and suddenly went berserk, barking wildly.

“What is it girl?  What’s wrong?” I asked her, trying unsuccessfully to calm her down.

It wasn’t until she abruptly backed away from the trees and started mewling piteously, that I became afraid myself.

My mind flashed on a book I’d recently read, a Stephen King horror thriller, The Tommyknockers I think, about a dog who’d dug up something in the woods: an evil, alien, space object.  I didn’t think there was anything from outer space in that Russian olive thicket, but there might be a wild animal on the other side, drinking from the river.  Cougars were not unheard of back in the canyon.  I called Lindsey and we quickly made tracks back out of the canyon.

As peaceful as the canyon is most of the time, this was not my only scare, hiking in it.  One time I decided to climb up the canyon wall, about 450 feet, to get a view of the valley below.  Half way up, I bent over to look at a black sliver of obsidian laying in the dirt.  I didn’t want to miss finding a possible arrow head.  Then I heard the unmistakable “ping” of a bullet hitting rock not too far from me.  My head snapped around to search behind and below me.  Who was shooting at the rim rock?   I couldn’t see anyone down near the river.

Maybe ten seconds later I heard another ping of a bullet, this one sending rock flying above me. Were they shooting at me?

I didn’t stay around to find out, but started skidding down the side of the canyon wall as fast as I could, stumbling over sagebrush and basalt rocks as I went. I never found out who the shooter was, but after that, I always made sure I wore a bright cap on my head when I hiked in the canyon.

Today, as is my habit, I walk until I come to the big boulder settled among some grease wood at the base of the canyon.  Maybe it’s a little obsessive-compulsive of me, but I lightly tap the boulder’s rounded, pebbled surface, and then pivot to head back the way I came. I guess the boulder’s a touchstone of sorts, a reference point for my many walks in this scenic, wild canyon.

Image credit:  Snake River Canyon